Motivation and Learning to Read

I have a piano. I bought it about 10 years ago. It is sitting in the room right next to my office. It’s not actually a piano — it’s one of those fancy electric keyboards. It sounds just like a piano, but you can plug in headphones and play without bothering other people. It was shockingly expensive — much more expensive than a piano — but when I bought it, I thought was a good idea to be able to play with headphones on because I really don’t know how to play.

I always wanted to learn when I was a kid, but my family was fairly poor, and piano lessons were a luxury that were hard to justify. So about 10 years ago, as an adult in graduate school, I decided I would buy a piano and realize my life-long desire to learn how to play. I stuck with it for a while, and I was learning — I really was — but things came up, life happened, and I stopped practicing regularly. Eventually, I started stacking things on the piano. And now, it is buried under papers and various detritus and rubble, and it is actually behind the exercise bike I bought to get in better shape (which I also don’t use). So I don’t play it.

I won’t tell you how much that thing cost me, but I will tell you this — it was a foolish waste of more money than I could afford in graduate school. In much the same way that people spend a lot of money to join a gym, thinking that the expense will motivate them to actually use the facilities, I believed that spending money on a high-quality keyboard would encourage me to actually use it. I got the delux model. It didn’t help.

I was lamenting about my piano-related sloth and lack of discipline to one of my musician friends recently, and she said that you have to learn to play musical instruments when you are a child. She claimed that adults really can’t learn to play all that well — something about a critical period for developing an “ear” for music. I think that’s hogwash. I think it is much more straightforward than that. When I was practicing, I was learning, but when I stopped practicing, I stopped learning. It has nothing to do with the development of my “ear” for music — it has to do with the fact that I have lived nearly 40 years without this skill. I have a life that does not include the piano — it is a full, rich life, and there are many demands for my time. Being disciplined and developing a new skill that I have learned to live without is just not easy at this point in my life.

Oh, fine, maybe my friend has a point — no matter how much I practice, there may be some subtleties that will be lost on me because I did not learn this skill as a very young child. But for the most part, I don’t think there is anything stopping me from learning to play the piano reasonably well except for my own inertia. Almost every day for nearly 40 years I have not played the piano — why should today be any different? If I were disciplined and motivated to learn to play, then I would learn to play. But I’m not. When I was a child, I had more free time and fewer habits — incorporating piano practice into my life every day would have been relatively easy. But as an adult, I am stuck in a rut that does not have a piano in it.

This is basically the way it works with learning to read. A person can actually learn to read at any age. There is nothing especially magical about learning to read in the first few years of school. But the fact is, if a child does not learn to read by 3rd grade, odds are that child will never learn to read. Why is that?

If a 12-year-old or a 20-year-old or a 50-year-old wants to learn to read, the challenges are basically the same as they are for the 6-year-old. The wanna-be reader needs to connect oral language with printed text. She needs to develop phoneme awareness, appreciate the alphabetic principle, learn to decode words fluently, and develop sophisticated comprehension skills. The cognitive building blocks of literacy are the same at any age. So what happens in 2nd and 3rd grade that separates the good readers who will read throughout their whole lives from the struggling readers who will probably struggle throughout their whole lives?

Motivation. The building blocks are the same, and the process of learning is the same, but the motivation to learn changes.

Starting in 2nd grade, some students begin to realize that they do not read as well as their peers. This becomes cemented in 3rd grade, and the struggling reader usually develops avoidance behaviors well before 4th grade. As Michael Pressley so eloquently described it in his wonderful book, Reading Instruction that Works, in the black-and-white world of the 8-year-old mind, reading ability is related to intelligence. In kindergarten and 1st grade, students believe that they will learn to read if they try hard. But starting in 2nd grade, students begin to believe that intelligent students are good readers, and that poor readers are unintelligent.

Put simply, students in 3rd grade who are still struggling with reading start to see themselves as stupid. They see their peers reading so effortlessly and fluently, and they begin to think that their peers are good readers because their peers are smarter than they are. But they don’t want other people to think of them as stupid, so they try to hide the fact that they can not read as well as their peers. This leads to avoidance behaviors — they avoid reading — some of them avoid it at any cost, going to extremes to avoid letting people know that they really can’t read well. Some students would rather be punished and sent out of the room than have to embarrass themselves trying to read. They act out, they argue, they sulk — when they take reading tests, they deliberately and blatantly miss all of the questions because they would rather be seen as a problem child who is just not trying than a stupid child who just can’t read.

Teaching a 3rd grader to read is just like teaching a 1st grader to read, but with one very important difference — the 3rd grader is not as motivated. In fact, a lot of struggling readers in 3rd and 4th grade will fight you every step of the way. By 5th or 6th grade, the situation is very grave because the student is so far behind her peers, she doesn’t believe she will ever catch up.

And in some respects, she’s right. She probably never will catch up. The Matthew Effect is so powerful, students who learn to read as adolescents or adults never do read quite as well as their peers who mastered reading at an early age. Joe Torgesen, the hardest working reading researcher in the world (get a glimpse of his life here), has been doing highly effective interventions with older struggling readers in his reading clinic at Florida State University for years. He and his colleagues have developed extremely effective, intensive, and explicit interventions for adolescent struggling readers that dramatically accelerate their reading skill development.

On every metric, students who go through this intervention improve significantly. But on most metrics they still do not catch up with their peers. The struggling readers’ fluency and sight-word vocabulary increase steadily after intervention, but so too do the talented readers’ fluency and sight-word vocabulary. After effective intervention, the struggling readers are no longer falling behind their peers, but they are not catching up, either. Their peers have a head start in this horse race — it is as simple as that.

But as I so eloquently pointed out to Torgesen at one of his presentations — Yeah? So what? So what if they never “catch up?” The point of reading is not to be as good as your peers — it is to be able to read well enough to get information and enjoyment from text.

If there is some way to intervene with adolescent students who are still struggling with reading, overcome their lack of motivation to try, and actually get them to practice their skills, develop fluency, build their vocabulary, and develop comprehension strategies, then those students will eventually reach a criterion that we describe as “proficient” or “literate.” So what if their peers read more fluently than them? They will read fluently enough. So what if their peers have a larger vocabulary? Their vocabulary is large enough. So what if other students are “better” readers? Past a point, it just doesn’t matter that much.

The trick with the older struggling reader is to overcome that motivation hurdle — to break through the walls the student has created, and instill new literacy habits that become ingrained into that student’s daily life. When students make a habit of using text as a tool every day, the rest will largely take care of itself.

The interventions that Torgesen and his colleagues have developed are extremely intensive and explicit and individualized. They require a very knowledgeable and talented teacher who can spend a lot of time with the struggling reader, providing explicit instruction, monitoring progress, and practicing skills. The goal of the intervention is to rapidly accelerate the development of literacy skills, so the student is saturated with high-quality instruction and intensive practice every day.

Sadly, in most real classrooms, struggling readers are actually given fewer opportunities to learn and practice skills. According to classroom-observation research conducted by people like Richard Allington and Andy Biemiller, struggling readers are typically relegated to a corner of the classroom where they can work on worksheets and other busy work that really don’t do much to enhance their reading skills (See V is for Volume). Or they are pulled from the regular classroom altogether and put in resource rooms or special education classes where expectations for success are lower, and opportunities for developing reading skills are usually even more meager than in the mainstream classroom.

It is no wonder that the typical struggling reader in 3rd grade will probably struggle her whole life — she has reached the point of frustration, lacks intrinsic motivation, and the school she attends provides less and less external motivation and opportunities to learn.

I was talking to Marilyn Adams recently about this issue of motivation, and she told me something that gave me a great deal of hope for the future. We were talking about a product that she is helping to develop called Reading Assistant. In a nutshell, Reading Assistant is a computer-based program that understands human speech. Thus, Reading Assistant can present text on the computer screen for a student, and “listen” to that student read the text aloud. Reading Assistant monitors oral reading accuracy and fluency, and provides helpful prompts when the student needs a little help. With this software, students can sit and practice reading passages of text over and over and over for an attentive “audience” who never gets tired or bored, and — this is the important part — never judges the student.

Adams told me that she had noticed that older struggling readers who are normally very reluctant to read seem to be more willing to sit with Reading Assistant and practice reading for longer periods of time. She had not yet formally examined this question when I was talking to her, but her impression in observing students was that self-conscious, struggling readers seemed to be less embarrassed to read aloud for the computer than for a human audience, and thus seemed to be more motivated to practice. And for older struggling readers, that motivation to practice is key — anything that unlocks that key (so to speak) is worth looking at more closely.

I wonder if I can get something like that for my piano.